Three states that rely on the Colorado River’s dangerously dwindling water supplies have agreed to cut back their usage, which officials hope will buy enough time to find a long-term solution to the depletion of one of the country’s most relied-upon water sources.
Forty million people in Wyoming, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, California, Arizona, and parts of Mexico rely on the Colorado River’s flow, which has suffered roughly a 33% decrease in recent years due to chronic overuse, population growth, and historic drought. Without the river’s water filling Lake Mead and Lake Powell, life wouldn’t be able to thrive in desert environments like Las Vegas and Phoenix.
That’s why Nevada, Arizona, and California have pledged to reduce their intake from the Colorado River by 13%—or 3 million football fields worth of water—over the next three years in exchange for $1.2 billion in federal payments.
How close is the river to drying up?
Officials have been working toward a deal since last summer when river levels dropped enough that the hydroelectric turbines at Lake Mead and Lake Powell risked shutting down.
- Lake Mead is so empty (only one-third full) that any further drop means it could become a dead pool and stop flowing to the lower basin states of Nevada, Arizona, and California.
- The West’s record rain and snowfall this winter helped the river, and the seasonal spring runoff happening now is also a boost, but neither is enough to pull the region out of its worst drought in 1,200 years.
Looking ahead…the governors of Nevada, Arizona, and California wrote in a joint statement that they expect their agreement will protect the reservoirs until it expires in 2026. Long-planned renegotiations with the federal government over new guidelines for who gets how much water after 2026 begin next month.—ML